I’m sitting in a hotel room during late June, located ground zero in the “revitalized” section of downtown Detroit, staring blankly at the ninth rerun of SportsCenter. My father, brother, and me had taken a trip into the proud home of the Red Wings, Tigers, Lions and Robo-Cop on a sojourn to see our Yankees do battle in the newly minted Comerica Park. We had just seen Wrigley Field a week prior on our Baseball themed Summer Vacation, and once the initial and deserved shock of seeing what a cathedral that park truly is wore off, the main ingredient served in the back of my mind about seeing and experiencing a Cubs game was not the Ivy on the wall, the merrily obstructed views, or even the Hot Dogs [best in the free world].
It was the fans.
Cub fans are of a different sort. They weren’t watching the game in a modern, frenzied pace that is best reserved in Chicago for the middling Bears [a shuffling crew.] It was quite the contrary, as they took in the experience of a meaningless June against the Brewers wholly inside themselves. Pitch by pitch, inning by inning, one didn’t feel the momentum of the moment, a tie game, taking hold of the mass gathering bowing at the altar of their beloved Cubbies. Instead of tensing up, the crowd seemed to exhale as each frame ended, expelling all of which they had bottled up in the vast emporium that exists within any seasoned baseball fan’s mind. My brother and I had noticed the trend by the fourth inning. After Corey Patterson, a maddeningly gifted player who had not fulfilled his copious potential after ruining his knee during the ’03 season, failed to get a bunt down and than proceeded to strike out, a Corey Patterson trademark moment in a tight game which demanded perfection from both teams, we both prepared our eardrums for the venom sure to rise from the throats of those jaded by the stars Cub fanatics. There was booing to be sure. But there was something missing. Where was the anger? The booing had a different tone, a different tint if you will, that I recognized only later that night.
It was apologetic. Apologetic booing. How sweet.
” You believe these freaking people?” My brother Greg wondered it aloud in utter amazement.
I nodded my head in quiet understanding, than took yet another nervous quick glance at the romantic out of town scoreboard. The Yankees led Baltimore by one run, and hoped to stave off the ghost of .500 for at least one more night.
The crowd now roared, for Derrek Lee had hit a massive home run. Something wrong with that roar too, I thought at the time. Must have been the surprise.
The Cubs would win that night, in dramatic fashion. Corey Patterson made an incredible sliding catch, the crescendo of which was an amazing throw that followed, nailing a game deciding run at the plate. It was Patterson at his best, for he represented the Cubs, always tantalizing, never quite delivering. But that moment did boldly exist, when the universe clicks, Patterson makes the catch, and for one brief second you believe as they do, that this just might be the Cubs’ season. And than it’s seconds pass, nothing more than another strong gust of wind careening out towards the Ivey in left, on a righteous path to nowhere.
As I watched the Yankee highlight reel in the hotel room, a magnificently awful loss in extra innings to Baltimore which ended with a Brian Roberts home run served up with courtesy by the washed up Mike Stanton, I finally realized what had been bothering me deep into the night, the question that staved off sleep, forcing me to hear Stuart Scott’s voice past the point of nausea.
Had I, a Yankee fan ever had that moment?
That moment when a fan realizes hell, it just might be our year? Perhaps being the perpetual over dog has robbed recent Yankee followers of what all other baseball fanatics come to look for and love, a defining victory that crystallizes the season in perfect symmetry.
The problem with being a Yankee fan is that there is no real moment. The only defining part of the season exists when they succeed or fail in October. The choices to pick from are slim, either a collective victory in the World Series or a collective choke before or in that, one staining the people who root for them over a long cold winter.
The coldest winter of them all was in fact 2004. The utter collapse of the New York Yankees during the A.L.C.S. against the Boston Red Sox that past October was a fresh wound ready to be cultivated with any further mistakes by the team, specifically the front office.
Odds that the wound would only be further infected with organizational bacteria seemed even, thanks to the generally unstable George Steinbrenner assuming more control of the day to day operations. When Steinbrenner found himself seen and not heard back in the late nineties, the Yankee train seemed primed to barrel right into the new Century. Unfortunately, this new era of winning with sanity began gathering chinks in its armor.
In 2001, a tired, old, and overmatched squad which had fired off it’s last quality haymakers at a record setting Mariners team the round before managed to somehow take the Arizona Diamondbacks on a seven game ride, despite a complete dearth of hitting, winded pitching, and occasionally sloppy defense. They accomplished this not through smoke and mirror, but miracle, as Tino Martinez and Scott Brosious delivered late inning Home Runs that now float peacefully in the hallowed halls of Baseball history.
The better team did indeed win, even though the Yankees were in position to perform the biggest World Series heist since the Reds blew past a mentally unfocused A’s team in 1990, a Series sweep that one might have missed with blinking.
Despite the valiant attempt at victory, Owner/Ogre Steinbrenner saw the loss as an ample opportunity to reassume the Front Office Tyranny that had the Franchise six feet under during the late eighties. In fact, back than, a point of emphasis for more than a few disgruntled Yankee followers was a swelling opinion that the only entity stopping the Yankees from greatness was in fact their owner, a devilish irony which still gnawed at the proud Shipping Mogul, who in his most daring dreams saw himself as a General leading his battalion into warfare.
After four winters of insane spending that would have made M.C. Hammer blushing back in his 2 Legit 2 Quit salad days, the Yankees were left without a World Championship addition to their epically crowded mantle. The 2002 season was buried under a tidal wave of Angel base hits, sending the Bombers home in a sling with an embarrassing Divisional Series Defeat.
2003 served as a breathing testament to the core of this team and what they still meant to the franchise. No event better forged that fact quite like Game Seven of the A.L.C.S. against the Red Sox. For instance, in the historical rally against Pedro Martinez that came from a seeming abyss during the eighth inning, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada all recorded a Coup De Grace of clutch hits. Another stalwart Yankee that more often than not rang the Post Season bell when it tolled was Andy Pettite. The lefty had won three game number twos in the chaos of the Post Season, each victory arriving decidedly timely fashion: coming after game one Yankee defeats. Pettite’s contract was set to expire after the ’03 Season.
Instead of pledging allegiance to the proven winner, a term thrown around far too often in many circles yet rightly heaped on this particular lefty, many in the Tampa Bay faction warned that Pettite’s elbow and rotator cuff were frayed and that he would not hold up over the term of a long term deal. Instead, the focus switched to Javier Vazquez, a young right handed hurler burning as a star with the lackluster Montreal Expos. Javier appeared to be in possession of a complete package: he had veteran cool and savvy, combined with eye-popping statistics.
The organization had a decision to make. When the Vazquez trade went through, sending patient power hitting first baseman Nick Johnson and inconsistent Juan Rivera northbound in exchange for Javy, the team made it clear that they had found their new ace. It came weeks before Pettite’s final decision, drawing a precise route pointing towards their top priority. Pettite wouldn’t need a map. Only plane tickets to Houston.
The hurt on Andy’s face when he revealed ownership’s apparent lack of interest in resigning him was very real. So were the tears flowing from his eyes when asked a specific, tactless question during his press conference at Minute Maid Field.
Would he miss the Yankee fans?
Andy Pettite was a Yankee.
The history leading to an explanation of why Steinbrenner would balk at resigning Andy exposes perfectly how his overall philosophy had begun to ooze it’s way through the patched up cracks of the organization. As the walls began to leak, a sudden implosion became rapidly inevitable. 2004 served as the Yankees titanic, the more effectively built Red Sox an iceberg.
George was fed up with Pettite’s inconsistency and lack of toughness in the summer of 1999. By than, thanks to his “baseball people”, the Boss’ complaints at this time were numerous yet feeble, little nitpicks on the team and it’s personality usually smoothed over by the cool Joe Torre. Torre’s unique way of handling the Boss’ outbursts go all the way back to his first year as manager in 1996, when during a trying time late in that year with the Yanks were struggling to hold on to what had been previously been a 12 game lead on Baltimore, the calm manager reached for a way to loosen up his tight team. The Boss gave it to him practically as a punch line. He had sent down a lineup for Joe to use for that night’s pivotal game, and to inspire a laugh from his low morale troops, Torre shared the lineup with the team.
Hilariously enough, Steinbrenner listed Ruben Sierra in the same card with Cecil Fielder. This would have been all fine and good if Sierra and Fielder hadn’t been traded for each other a solid month before.
All that was missing was Joe finishing with ” Our lovable and insane Boss, George Steinbrenner everybody.”
Unfortunately for Joe, the Pettite situation couldn’t be solved with any goofy lineup cards written by LT. Steinbrenner. His lefty was struggling, a weak link in fact, ever since he’d been nailed in the face by a come backer in a game against Atlanta. Andy had earned Joe’s everlasting trust with a nerve wracking 1-0 win against the same Braves and John Smoltz two years prior in the most important game of the 1996 World Series. It was the swing game, the one that changes the face of any dead locked series, Game Five. There, Pettite stared down the best pitcher in Baseball and the best team of the 1990’s and ripped their hearts out, denying them a lead in the Series. Joe would never stop believing in Andy.
The Boss disagreed. He was foaming at the mouth to trade the struggling south paw to Philadelphia, for Todd Stottlemyre, who seemed to be a number three starter from birth, and Reggie Taylor, an athletic Center Fielder who was on the periphery of the Major Leagues as a legitimate prospect.
So history had it that Joe convinced George of keeping his big game pitcher. History also had it that George would be wrong. Dead wrong in fact. Yet another chapter in the never- ending history of the Big Stein making crude and quick decisions bound to eventually backfire down the line. Every time that Andy pitched, every time that Andy won, it was a reflection on Steinbrenner’s plain idiocy in Baseball operations. He knew this. And he waited. He waited for the day when Joe wouldn’t have the chance to protect his beloved pitcher. It wasn’t about slapping Andy off the Yankee map, without so much as a phone call. He had cheeseburgers with mutual fine diner and clubhouse cancer David Wells. He couldn’t pick up a phone and dial Pettite.
It was all about the ultimate coup in Steinbrenner’s mind. It was about ditching Andy than winning without him, proving once and for all he was a Baseball genius. How exactly did this prove his point? It’s hard to speak for a man who put Sierra and Fielder in the same lineup.
Joe took the lumps like a trooper. His salary helped.
The fact that a petty disagreement with his manager, the best in Baseball, could help lend a hand in blowing a 3-0 lead against Boston ruptured the cracks in the façade resting above Yankee stadium. The inmates were now running the asylum. 2005 seemed destined to be a lost year.
Before Napoleon took over, there was a council in place if you will, ruling over the French with what can be politely called a doughy, soft fist. So inept was this council that they sought a figurehead for which they can blame all the misfortunes of the people on, someone stupid enough to accept the job as a leader when in fact he was being cast as scapegoat. They thought they had found their man in Napoleon Bonaparte, a solider stupid enough to take on an entire British ship with just one cannon. With their paper leader in place, the council sat back, relaxed, and prepared to expunge their being of any blame.
The Tampa Council may have had the same thing in mind when they hired Joe Torre, a man clueless enough to stare down George Steinbrenner with just one weapon: instead of a cannon, Joe had his pride. And just as the council failed to realize Napoleon was playing them all along until it was too late, George would be played by Joe to a tee until 2001, when the Boss grew bored of not finding a way to screw things up.
As I sat in my hotel room, I mentally examined the team Steinbrenner had built. Jason Giambi, the first corpse in recorded history to ever have 3 years left on his contract [with options.] There was a kid at second, a sign of hope bound for being snatched away by perhaps, oh, let’s say Jason Schmidt. Jeter, a Captain on his sinking vessel, valiantly standing in front of his mast while the crew around him went bottom up. Alex Rodriguez, who’d delivered against the Twins but failed against Boston, the same way Marino might have led his team to a win in the Wild Card round only to fail on the bigger stage.
And A-Rod wore number 13. Beautiful.
A declining Jorge behind the plate, a speedster allergic to first base patrolling the outfield in Tony Womack, who lost his ability to hit as he first set foot on a warning track after switching from his original position of second base, the ghost of Bernie Williams sometimes haunting Center, and the always affable Gary Sheffield in right.
And hey, the pitching was shaping up as well. Randy Johnson, who’d lost the bite on both his slider and his personality, Carl Pavano, who had forgotten 4 miles on his fastball on his merry way to the bank, Mike Mussina, who looked as if he just wanted to be reading the Business section of the Times at certain times, Kevin Brown, whose shadow of his former self had long since called it a day, and Tampa favorite Jaret Wright, who’d manage to make Steinbrenner look like a moron after the first two weeks of April. A record only topped by perhaps Kenny Rogers. A spectacular rotation indeed, the best money could buy.
It was odd, a team that wasn’t going anywhere to become the team I followed the most in my years as a fan. Maybe it was because they were such a roller coaster, must see T.V. Maybe it was because I love Baseball way too much, perhaps an obsessive compulsive tick in my personality, which didn’t need anymore ticks or tocks thank you very much.
But there I would be, ready for the game every single night, except for the week ends, where other needs would become just as necessary.
The highs and lows were excruciating, right from the opening weekend against the Red Sox.
Randy Johnson dominated in game number one, Derek Jeter bailed out Mariano in game number two, and Alex Rodriguez bobbled away game three. All in all, it may have been the least satisfying opening series victory in Major League Baseball history.
The newcomers around the team were forced to adapt to an environment where victory wasn’t a fringe bonus, but a necessity second only to breathing on their insane owners demonic wish list. As the payroll skyrocketed, the fans began to shift their behavioral tendencies toward that of their team’s Five Star General. Yankee fans became almost fidgety with their status as Alpha Dog, jumping to conclusions after even the simplest victories or the most elementary defeats. When a player didn’t perform up to expectation, it was no longer about their team; it was about them, or more precisely, their own universal assertion of players letting down the very people that practically and essentially mailed their checks in the first place. What was once a symbiotic relationship had now become parasitic. The fans demands now equaled the owners. Jaret Wright would be roundly booed after a rough first start. As would legendary closer Mo Rivera after blowing his second save against the Red Sox, an unforgivable act of ungrateful despicableness.
Mo would of course check in with his usual dominating season, and with a weak field of A.L. pitchers, could be on the path to receiving a much deserving first CY Young.
With sanity taking a summer vacation in the Bronx, it was up to the players in the locker room to compose themselves. But the lack of team chemistry was scarily and forcibly a very real thing. The team lacked a rhythm on the field, not taking patient at bats, as evidenced by Bruce Chen’s walk in Central Park while pitching a complete game shut out against the Bronx Bombers in early April. The lack of communication on defense was also evident. In a defeat to Toronto, there was miscommunication between Alex
Rodriguez and the rest of the infield on sac bunt, leaving third base astonishingly uncovered. The base runner took the bag without pausing for quick thanks, and the Yanks would lose by a thin margin.
The team appeared to turn a corner in May behind a resurgent Tino Martinez, but when his bat cooled off, so did the rest of the lineup. A run of hope gave way to a disastrous 1-6 ride through Tampa Bay and Kansas City. As the team continued to sink on a trip through Middle America, rumors of Joe Torre’s firing came in loud and clear from both the Tampa Council and the Print Media. The latter also had an agenda, figuring to be finally right about Torre’s demise, even if they were nearly ten years late.
The strangest thing about this up and season was the indisputable fact that there wasn’t one game to pinpoint where everything turned around. Instead, that game would occur, that game where Jason Giambi went deep off of Jose Mesa, or that game where Alex Rodriguez dealt a crushing blow to temporary closer but eternal nemesis Curt Schilling and the team would continue on with it’s inconsistent play. It was due to the fractured starting pitching which featured an injured Pavano, Brown, and Wright, not allowing the team to ever sustain a season stabilizing winning streak. They’d break off five, and than lose two out of three. Along the way Carl would go from number two starter to number one liability, an assault punctuated with many questioning his mental toughness. There would be no redemption for Kevin Brown, and Wright may have well been a punch line in G.M. Brian Cashman’s New York faction. Chien Ming Wang would play the role of savior, and than go down with injury himself, a blow so cataclysmic that the Immortal Tim Redding would be summoned to make a start against Boston.
Along the bumps in the road, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Gary Sheffield all served as constants. They were consistent for most of the year, save for Sheffield’s slide when rumors of him being trade bait circulated around the New York Media. What started as a clever media ploy by Met General Manager Omar Minya to boost the value of Mike Cameron snow balled into a legitimate crisis, with Sheffield vowing not too play for whoever had the misfortune of acquiring him. The deadline would pass with Gary still intimidating pitchers as a Yankee. Jeter came out of the gate with his guns blazing, but would eventually fall in line with his career performance, equaling a .300 average, solid, sometimes spectacular defense, and unrelenting leadership. Jeter was the heartbeat of the team, the warrior who kept them together, and the last real positional player from the glory days who could still play at his peak. A-Rod was an M.V.P. for every month of the season, and without him, the Yankees would have been drowning instead of treading water during the early struggles of the campaign.
The days fell off the calendar as they so often do, easily. The Yankees trailed first the Orioles, and than the Red Sox, for the greater portion of the season. To summarize the chase would be impossible. The spectrum of emotions would be impossible to properly examine and put in any context. Quite simply this 162 game marathon was a series of must wins and second chances. The Red Sox would breathe life into the Yankees in September, squandering a five game lead due to ineffective pitching on a grand scale, from the rotation down to the bullpen.
I finally went to sleep that night, in the uncomfortable hotel bed, with the symphony of downtown Detroit rattling in my eardrums. First place wasn’t on my mind. This season was now more about survival. The only thing that could save the Yankees now was a trade, a transaction unsettling enough to change the culture of the clubhouse, and shift the team’s fortunes.
Shawn Chacon. Aaron Small. Reminds me of the scene in Major League, where a couple of hardened Cleveland construction workers examine the feeble roster of the Tribe and sum it up with a simple:
” Who the hell are these guys?”
Shawn Chacon, acquired for a pair of erratic flamethrowers toiling in the Minors, was an All Star in 2003 and the worst pitcher in the Major Leagues for the Colorado Rockies in ’04. Chacon made the All Star team in the former as a starter, and the beyond beleaguered Rockies came up with the brilliant idea to turn their best pitcher into a closer in ’04. Once in his new role, Chacon flopped so miserably and completely that one can only gape disbelievingly at his numbers. An ERA north of 6, enough blown saves to make an Armando Benitez blush, and control so awful that he nearly walked as many hitters as innings pitched. Adding to his resume was a reputation as sulking, misunderstood malcontent who could never quite harness his great stuff. Chacon was reinstalled to the rotation in ’05, and expectations were quite below sea level. Despite firing off three quality outings in a row, the Rockies practically gave Shawn away to the Yankees despite having him for one more guaranteed year.
Aaron Small was at the end of his rope. Despite a mildly effective turn in spring training, Aaron was stinking out the joint in the Minor Leagues. Sporting an unsightly E.R.A., the 33 year old walking definition of a journeyman considered hanging up his cleats in the middle of the All Star Break. So lost was the tall, gangly right-hander who belied his surname that he placed a call to the Columbus Clippers’ Catholic Priest, and simply asked him to light a candle for his career.
The prayer answered for Small was the worst nightmare for the Yankees. Wang went down with a shoulder injury, making the move to bring up the former high school teammate of Jason Giambi a necessity.
The performance of Shawn Chacon shouldn’t be confused or put in the same category with fellow last-ditch warrior Aaron Small. The fact is that Chacon was a former third round draft choice that just may have needed to escape back below altitude in order to fulfill what his talent would allow. Aaron Small on the other had, can at this point best be compared to Kurt Warner, an Arena League washout who guided the Rams to a Super Bowl from behind center, all while playing like a super human along the way. Without Aaron Small, the Yankees simply would not have sniffed the playoffs. With Chacon and Small, the Yankees could win the Division. Randy Johnson’s contribution should also warrant mention, as he delivered on all the hype in one clutch September, washing away what had previously been a stunningly unsatisfying inaugural season with the New York Yankees. Mike Mussina also pitched in with quality starts before going down with a strained elbow, yet another roadblock of adversity that this Yankee team would just plow through. Even Jaret Wright logged meaningful starts down the stretch, despite eventually succumbing to a barrage of batted balls and broken bats hit in his direction.
Jason Giambi, a poster boy for all that was wrong in the game, branded by the Steroids Scandal, weighed down by an Albatross of a contract, somehow overcame all the adversity that is packaged with the construction of a self made hell and played like a MVP during the second half. Time will tell whether Giambi’s turn around was real or artificial, sustaining or short lived, but undeniable is the fact that the Yankees could not have rallied back into the Playoff race without Jason Giambi.
I lived and died with every pitch in September. And it wasn’t until Mariano Rivera threw out Johnny Damon to wrap up an A.L. East crown, usually the first step for the Yankees but now a crowning achievement, that perhaps this team and it’s fans realized that they needed to die before they could live a little. Without so much riding on every game, every moment, the ecstasy experienced on a Saturday afternoon against Boston wouldn’t have nearly been as sweet. For years and years the Yankees were the favorite, the team that didn’t have that defining moment where it appeared everything would break even, where this would be their year, because they simply didn’t need such a sweeping script for any 162 game schedule. As I sat in a hotel room in Chicago, I searched for a moment. Celebrating an eighth consecutive division title, I realized that the entire 2005 season would be one great collage of memory, all rolled into one image of temporary glory. The moment passed through April, May, June, and July, ripped through August, and exploded in September. It may have passed without me even knowing it, providing the ultimate truth that these Yankees were a team that defied any real composition or definition.